These two teams have a lot in common. Broadly, they both had high expectations and have disappointed. For the Cowboys, many of their struggles can be attributed to All Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. This is his last game on that suspension, and if the Cowboys can ride it out, they will have gone 3-3 in his absence and still be in the playoff hunt.
Let’s get to the Q&A:
1. Early on the difference in the Cowboys with and without Ezekiel Elliott was night and day. With him they were great, without him, they were terrible. But they have scored over 30 points the past two weeks. Have they acclimated?
They have somewhat, but all those points haven't been from just the offense in the past couple of games. Against Washington the Cowboys scored a touchdown on a punt return and the defense/special teams set the offense up with short fields from turnovers. In the Giants game, the Cowboys scored three touchdowns as a result of long runs-after-catch on short passes. So there has been some other reasons the Cowboys are putting up big points. But, having said all that, they are utilizing their running game better. In Washington they were steamrolling the defense with Alfred Morris. So to some extent they have started to get used to running an offense without Zeke, but they are not the same team as they are when he plays. There is an element of the big-play missing from the running game that Zeke provides. The Cowboys will run the ball, and grind out yards, but their big plays are now generally coming from the passing game, or as a result of plays made on defense or on special teams.
2. I have heard people say that Dak Prescott is wildly overrated. That Elliott makes him look better than he is. How fair is that criticism?
To say he is wildly overrated is just wrong. That's just nonsense, but there is no doubt that Zeke makes him look better; he would make any quarterback look better. In fact, Zeke makes the whole offense look better. But Prescott was having a pretty good season, not quite to the level of his rookie year, but very good until the Atlanta game happened. That's when the Cowboys coaches decided to leave left tackle Chaz Green (who was replacing an injured Tyron Smith at the time) on an island with no help and the Falcons had eight sacks on the day and were constantly in Prescott's face. That game seemed to make Prescott a little skittish, a little jumpy in the pocket and unsure about what he was doing. Over the next few games his confidence wasn't there and his mechanics were off. It was a brutal three-game stretch. In the past couple of games he seems to be recovering his swagger and has looked much better. Prescott is a very good quarterback who is only in his second year. His rookie year was unbelievably magical and he may never play that well again statistically, but to say he is wildly overrated is comical.
3. How much would this game make or break the Cowboys' playoff hopes?
This game is everything. Sure, if they lose you could probably concoct some kind of way they could make the playoffs by having everyone else they are chasing lose out, but that's not reality. The Cowboys have to win out if they have any hope of making the playoffs, and even if they do that it's no sure thing that they make it.
4. What areas on the Cowboys are most vulnerable?
The Cowboys wide receivers are not getting the job done although last week they had a couple of huge plays. But they are not consistently getting open, and when they do they have a case of the drops, especially Dez Bryant. Dallas doesn't have a threatening deep passing game, so defenses tend to bunch up at the line and try to stop the run game and make good tackles on the short passing game. If a team can do that well, the offense is in real trouble. Prescott tends to take the easy pass, the short pass and when you match that with an effective running game, it can work. But when players are dropping passes or not breaking tackles, it can lead to struggles. On defense, the Cowboys secondary is full of very young players. They are getting better and recently have looked very good, but they are still playing three rookies for a lot of snaps back there, that could be dangerous if a team can exploit it. Also, they are kind of soft in the middle of the defensive line if David Irving doesn't play because of a concussion.
5. Give me a few players on this Cowboys team upon whom their success in this game hinges.
Right tackle La'el Collins. He better do a decent job on Khalil Mack or it could be a long day. Collins is playing with a bulging disk in his back that has curtailed his ability to practice, but he has played well the last two games with it, and he needs to continue that this week.
Chidobe Awuzie/Jourdan Lewis. These two rookie conrerbacks are going to get a lot of snaps as both start on the outside with an injured Orlando Scandrick not likely to play. As rookies, they have played better than anticipated although Awuzie will be getting only his third start of the year. If they can put the clamps on the Raiders passing game, that will go along way. They need to give the Cowboys pass rush time to get home on Derek Carr.
I will add a link to my answers to his question when they’re posted